Movie Review: “Ad Astra” – Off-Course

Written by Jeremiah Greville October 02, 2019

As a reviewer, I find that my opinion often dovetails with general critical consensus. Each reviewer has a spate of lesser films that they summarily elevate due to personal tastes and proclivities, but almost every reviewer agrees on what comprises the upper echelon of releases in a given year. We all seem to agree on the very good and the very bad, even as our opinions vary on everything in-between. I’ve enjoyed bad films that have received negative reviews. I’ve sometimes hated films that I nonetheless recognize as exceptional. Ad Astra, however, is a critically-acclaimed film that I really dislike. I’m in the minority here, but I find it to be one of the most disappointing and insulting films of the year.

Ad Astra stars Brad Pitt as Roy McBride, an astronaut in a future where humanity has colonized the moon and Mars. When a mysterious anti-matter pulse begins threatening all life in the solar system, it’s up to Roy to find the source: the ship piloted by his legendary astronaut father, Clifford McBride, who has been missing for thirty years. Roy is forced to embark on a mission that takes him through the cold emptiness of space and along the way confront the truth about his relationship with his father. Ad Astra also stars Tommy Lee Jones as Clifford McBride, along with Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, and Donald Sutherland. It’s co-written, produced, and directed by James Gray, from a script by Gray and Ethan Gross.

“We are world-eaters.”

And it’s boring, ponderous, insulting, incredibly self-indulgent and so far up its own ass that its eyes are in its throat. I’ve included the trailer above, but below is a no-context clip from an Adult Swim show to give you a real idea of what this film is like:


The biggest problem with Ad Astra is the horrible decision to include voice-over narration by Brad Pitt’s character, Roy. Throughout the film, Roy tells us what he’s thinking and feeling, and it’s so incredibly on-the-nose that I’m getting upset just typing this out. This is a film that’s being lauded for its subtext, but there is no subtext — it’s all text! It’s easy to see meaning in a film when the character literally tells you the theme and the point every ten minutes!

Then there are the multiple moments in Ad Astra where the tone shifts completely and you’re left baffled as to what you just saw. Does anyone else remember the 2007 movie Sunshine? I’m going to be bringing up a lot of other science fiction films in this review, so be forewarned. Sunshine is a sci-fi thriller written by Alex Garland and directed by Danny Boyle that’s damn-near transcendent until it’s third act…when it suddenly turns into a weird horror/slasher film for ten minutes. Ad Astra has at least four different moments like this! All of them are meant to be shocking, but all of them hit with the force of a loud fart. You’re surprised and momentarily puzzled, then left dealing with the smell.

“What the hell am I doing here?”

I’m going to avoid as many spoilers as possible here, which is going to make this review even more difficult, but most of these moments are easy to recognize as they’re happening. However, the problems with Ad Astra are not just these jarring moments — there are small issues that build up all over this thing. Logic leaps in the world-building often take you out of the narrative. There are even problems with the depiction of ‘space-physics’ in the third act. Director James Gray has gone on record saying he wanted to make the most realistic depiction of space on film, and this definitely isn’t it. If you’ve seen Gravity, or Interstellar, or the Martian, or First Man, or Apollo 13, or even Event Horizon, you have some sense what ‘space-physics’ are. I’m certainly no expert, but even I can tell simple things like force and momentum aren’t realistically depicted here.

Then we get into more difficult issues entirely, like the theme of this film and what it’s saying about emotion and humanity. This is less about the quality of the film and more about my personal tastes, but I’m not moved by the exploration of this particular character’s emotional state. Pitt’s character Roy is a man who constantly keeps his emotions and heart-rate in check, and has to undergo near-constant psychological evaluations throughout the film. Congratulations, Ad Astra! You’ve commented on how society expects everyone to maintain a pleasant facade. Bravo. It’s deep if you’ve never dipped a toe outside the kiddie pool. I’m upset. I’m upset that this is exactly the type of film that will win people over with this message. Let’s be clear: the message isn’t bad, and you may identify with Roy as a character, but it’s an obvious message. It’s surface level. And it’s annoyingly presented by the filmmakers as if they’re the first to figure it out. That’s insulting.

“Here we go again.”

But the real, true shame of this film is that so friggin’ much of it is top-notch. The sound design — while punctuated with long stretches of silence that I’ve come to hate in films — is evocative, and there are even hints of synth soundtrack and slight melody that work really well. Like many of its high-brow sci-fi peers in recent years, Ad Astra is really beautiful at times. Every shot is immaculate and begging to be seen on the big screen, or at least in high-definition. And Brad Pitt is incredible. He brings so much emotional subtlety and nuance to his role that it’s even more upsetting his performance was in service to this film. An Oscar nomination would certainly be warranted for his work alone, but I would have loved to see a version of this film without his voice-over. His acting could have sold his journey far better than bland narration.

And this is the problem. The issues I’ve pointed out are largely in the script. Everything else — the direction, the acting, the design, the cinematography — are all great. Pitt’s performance is so good that it can make you ignore the obviousness of what he’s saying. The rest of the film is coated in that prestige glossy Oscar-bait sheen that so many space movies have these days, and I worry that people are blinded by it. However, I may not be giving other viewers enough credit. I can’t say other critics are completely wrong for liking this film. There are things to like and appreciate. But there was too damn much wrong with it for me to give it a pass. I like thoughtful science fiction. I don’t like pretentious naval-gazing that lacks subtlety, nuance, or perspective. I didn’t like Ad Astra. But we can still be friends if you do.

My Rating: 5.5/10

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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